Published Aug 01, 2003If anyone deserves to be the godfather of Canadian rock, it's Neil Young. Much like our country, he has never fully defined what he is. Sometimes he's an acoustic troubadour, sometimes a raging rocker. Sometimes he's a passionate critic of government policies, other times an unexpected proponent of conservative values. He's a model train enthusiast, vintage car collector, golfer, and devoted father to two physically challenged children. But his first love remains the muse he has instinctively followed for over 35 years. It has led him to record some of the best albums of all time, and a few of the worst. Yet, even at these low points there is still an unmistakably magical quality in Neil Young's songs, whether it's the eternal longing in his voice or his often transcendent guitar playing. With each new release, fans brace themselves for what it might contain, and even if it isn't brilliant, it is never less than interesting. That's certainly true of Greendale, out this August. A concept record surrounding a fictional small town where the lives of the Green family are irrevocably altered following a traumatic incident, it has all the earmarks of Young at his iconoclastic best. It's hard to imagine any of Young's peers attempting something so ambitious, but then again few were ever as ambitious in the first place.
1945 to 1960
Neil Percival Young is born in Toronto on November 12, 1945, the second son of respected journalist Scott Young and Edna "Rassy" Young (nee Ragland). The family remains in Toronto for two years before moving to the town of Omemee, near Peterborough, Ont. Neil enjoys an idyllic childhood there until contracting polio at the age of five. The vicious disease sends him to Toronto's Hospital For Sick Children for a week and leaves the left side of his body slightly damaged. It is also suspected to be the root cause of seizures he will experience in years to come. In the late 50s, the family moves back to Toronto when Scott lands a job as an interviewer on Hockey Night In Canada and begins publishing books. Neil's favourite pastime is listening to rock and roll on the radio, but he also envisions himself becoming a chicken farmer. That all changes when Scott begins seeing another woman and his marriage falls apart. Following the divorce in 1960, Neil is shipped off to Winnipeg to live with his mother and her extended family.
1961 to 1965
With Rassy becoming a fixture on a local television quiz show, Young attends Winnipeg's Kelvin High. He is quickly absorbed into the city's thriving music scene, and is inspired to pick up the guitar after encountering Randy Bachman of Chad Allen & the Expressions, later the Guess Who. Young forms his first band, the Squires, in 1963, and plays local teen dances. That year they record an instrumental single, "The Sultan" b/w "Aurora," at a Winnipeg radio station. The band proceeds to doing Beatles covers, but Young soon becomes enamoured with the work of Bob Dylan and acquires an acoustic guitar. Young also gets the travelling bug in 1964 and the Squires begin playing regularly in Thunder Bay, making the trip in Young's hearse, nicknamed Mort. During one residency there in 1965, The Squires catch the ear of Stephen Stills, a member of the Company, a New York-based folk group passing through town. The pair immediately hit it off and make a point of staying in touch. Frustrated by the Squires' limitations, Young decides to visit his father in Toronto before moving to either Liverpool or Los Angeles. On the way, Mort breaks down in Blind River, ON, leaving Young to ponder his circumstances.
1965 to 1966
Now determined to break into the Toronto scene, Young wavers between putting a new band together or becoming a solo artist, while working as a stock boy at a Coles book store. The band lasts one gig in Vermont, but on the trip Young meets folk singer Richey Furay (also a friend of Stills) and shows him some of the new songs he's been writing. Furay is especially impressed by one, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," and starts adding it to his own sets. Once back in Toronto, Young concentrates on playing the Yorkville coffeehouse circuit as a solo act without much success. He accepts an offer from bassist Bruce Palmer to play guitar in the Mynah Birds, fronted by future funk star Rick James, and bankrolled by heir to the Eaton's fortune, John Craig Eaton. The band lands a contract with Motown, but the opportunity sours when their manager runs off with the advance and James is arrested for being AWOL from the U.S. Navy. In early spring, 1966, Young and Palmer hatch a new plan. Unbeknownst to Eaton, they sell all of the Mynah Birds' equipment, buy a new hearse, and head for L.A. with the faint hope of finding Stills. Young is so nervous on the trip that when he's not driving, he lies in the back of the hearse listening for knocks in the transmission. Upon arriving in L.A., they are caught in a traffic jam. A few lanes over are Stills and Furay who, after noticing the hearse with Ontario plates, assume it must be Young. In a few days they have a new band.
1966 to 1968
The quartet of Young, Stills, Furay and Palmer hire Canadian drummer Dewey Martin after auditioning others, and within ten days Buffalo Springfield land a California tour with the Byrds through Stills's connections. Following that, the band signs with notorious managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, who get them playing regularly around L.A. and secure a deal with Atlantic Records subsidiary, ATCO. Young is initially the least prominent of the three front-men, given that his vocals are not as strong. Yet many take notice of his songwriting; "Clancy" (with Furay singing lead) is chosen as the first single from Buffalo Springfield. The band rockets to stardom after Stills's "For What It's Worth" is released, but Young is already feeling disillusioned even more so when Palmer is busted for pot in New York and deported back to Canada. The pressure causes his seizures to become more frequent (often happening on stage), and by the recording of the classic Buffalo Springfield Again in 1967, Young is working separately from the others. His main contributions to that album, "Mr. Soul," "Expecting To Fly," and "Broken Arrow," firmly establish his songwriting prowess. The band cobbles together one more album, Last Time Around, but by then Young is embracing life as a solo artist.
1968 to 1969
With new manager Elliot Roberts finding Young a home at Reprise Records, he records his self-titled debut album. Although a fine collection of songs, it fails to make a significant impact. Young blames the album's experimental production, done without his consent, and he sets about finding a new band to play with. He stumbles upon an L.A. bar band called the Rockets, led by mercurial singer/guitarist Danny Whitten. Despite not being great musicians, Young recognizes a raw energy about them and begins turning up at their gigs to jam. He is also a frequent visitor to their house, site of many debauched parties also attended by Charles Manson and other shady L.A. figures. After hearing Manson play some of his songs, Young even encourages Reprise to sign him. After writing "Cinnamon Girl," "Down By The River," and "Cowgirl In The Sand," while laid up with the flu, Young summons Whitten and the Rockets' rhythm section, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, to record them and others with his new producer David Briggs. These powerfully raw sessions are quickly released as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, credited to Neil Young & Crazy Horse, in spring 1969. This time Young finds a winning formula, but by the summer he is presented with an offer to join Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose debut album is one of the most acclaimed of the year. Their second gig is the Woodstock festival in August, but in the subsequent film and soundtrack, Young refuses to appear for reasons that remain unknown. In October, the quartet records Deja Vu, including Young's classic "Helpless," which will make them the biggest band in America upon its release the following spring. However, old animosities have Young once again looking for a way out.
Excited about doing another album with Crazy Horse, Young takes them on tour in February and March. It turns out to be a letdown Whitten's heroin habit begins rearing its head. Young instead turns to the prospect of doing a film soundtrack after reading a script by his neighbour, actor Dean Stockwell, called After The Goldrush. The film does not get made, but it inspires Young to write new songs that, combined with unreleased tracks from the previous year, comprise his next album. Goldrush will come to represent the apex of the new California singer/songwriter movement and will remain the high-water mark of Young's early career. Upon finishing Goldrush, Young is roped back into CSNY for their massive summer tour in support of Deja Vu. At the outset, the Kent State massacre moves Young to write "Ohio," recorded and released as a single only weeks after the incident. The tour proceeds in a haze of drugs and clashing egos, later documented on the live album Four Way Street. After one show at the Fillmore East, promoter Bill Graham is forced to coax them out of their dressing room for an encore by sliding $100 bills under the door. After The Goldrush is released by the fall, and Young retreats to doing solo acoustic shows, including one at Carnegie Hall. His fortune also allows him to purchase a sprawling ranch near San Francisco, which will greatly inspire his next outing.
1971 to 1972
Young plays his first Canadian tour, including triumphant concerts at Toronto's Massey Hall attended by friends and family. Coincidentally, new songs like "Heart Of Gold" and "Old Man" reveal a tinge of regret over leaving his homeland and a continuing disillusionment with fame. In February, Young arrives in Nashville to appear on The Johnny Cash Show, and ends up staying to record several of new songs. The session men, among them soon-to-be regular collaborators like slide guitarist Ben Keith and bassist Tim Drummond, become the core band for the rest of the album, completed at Young's ranch later in the year after he recuperates from a serious back injury. He also shoots his first film, the inexplicable Journey Through The Past. Harvest is released in spring, 1972 and is instantly the biggest selling album he has had; its simple, earthy sound connects with an audience desperately trying to hold on to hippie idealism. However, the album's best moment is "The Needle And The Damage Done," a thinly-veiled plea to Whitten to confront his addiction. For a tour that November, Young gives Whitten one last chance, but after a few rehearsals at the ranch, it's clear that the guitarist can't cut it. Young gives Whitten money for a flight back to L.A. and the next day he is found dead from an overdose of alcohol and Valium.
The tour goes ahead under a dark cloud; the set includes many new songs written in the aftermath of Whitten's death. The most powerful is "Don't Be Denied," a cathartic summary of the traumatic events in Young's life up to that point. It will become the centrepiece of live album Time Fades Away, recorded at various shows during the tour. The album's bitter, vindictive tone is the antithesis of Harvest and will be roundly ignored by most of his new fans. By then end of the tour that May, Young seems ready to try his luck with CSNY again, and meets with them in Maui to work on new material. As they rehearse, word comes that one of their young roadies, Bruce Berry, has died from a heroin overdose. The news sends Young even deeper into darkness, prompting still more songs exploring the waste of the drug culture. That fall, he reconnects with the remaining members of Crazy Horse and Ben Keith in L.A. and the group records several boozy sessions with David Briggs at SIR, the instrument rental company Berry had started. The results are harrowing; Reprise refuses to release the material. It will take another two years for Tonight's The Night to hit stores and it will come to be admired as one of the greatest albums ever made. With those demons exorcised, Young takes the band on the road for brief tours of England and North America. Fully bearded and drinking tequila heavily, Young casts an ominous figure on stage, concentrating on his most recent downbeat material and often playing "Tonight's The Night" several times during shows.
1974 to 1976
Young's dark night of the soul continues with the recording of On The Beach, an album that extends the paranoia of Tonight's The Night to the general atmosphere of Nixonian America. The ramshackle sessions are fuelled by "honey slides," Young's potent concoction of cheap marijuana drank with honey, which he later explains lowered his voice and slowed the pace to a crawl. Despite the fact that the album will go on to be a touchstone for lo-fi troubadours everywhere, it does little to boost sagging sales and by summer Elliot Roberts and David Geffen convince Young to participate in a massive CSNY stadium tour. It proves to be a landmark of excess, even though Young travels separately in a camper van. They attempt to record a new album in December, 1974, but the sessions quickly end when Stills takes command and Young walks out. Young has already started a new album to be called Homegrown, but shelves it indefinitely when the relationship with his wife, actress Carrie Snodgress, falls apart. Many tracks will eventually appear on subsequent albums. Following the split, Young temporarily relocates to Malibu where he begins jamming again with Crazy Horse, who in the meantime have found a new guitarist, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro. The quartet attacks Young's material with a new vigour, and bash out the rough and ready Zuma in November, 1975. The band launches the album with a California club tour, during which they also record a brand new song, "Like A Hurricane." The following spring sees them tour Europe and Japan, whereupon Young shocks everyone by announcing that he and Stills will record and tour together that summer. The Stills/Young Band turns out to be a huge mistake. The album's only saving grace is "Long May You Run," Young's charming ode to Mort the hearse. Young realises the futility of the partnership halfway through the tour, abruptly informing Stills with a note that he's getting out. He finishes the year touring the U.S. with Crazy Horse and making a cocaine-addled appearance at the Band's Last Waltz concert, which director Martin Scorsese deftly edits with a special "cocaine dot" over Young's nose.
1977 to 1979
Now seemingly reinvigorated, Young haphazardly pieces together American Stars N Bars out of various sessions from the previous year, and assembles the three-album Decade compilation. By early 1978 he also completes the acoustic-based Comes A Time, a hit-and-miss affair, but his biggest seller since Harvest. The success mirrors his personal life; he marries Pegi Morton. The stability allows him to once again indulge in off-the-wall ideas, and after becoming enamoured with Elliot Roberts' latest clients, Devo, Young determines to work them into a new film he's developing called Human Highway. The eventual results, with Young starring as a slow-witted mechanic alongside Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Sally Kirkland, are a predictably hilarious fiasco. At the same time, Young tries out new material during an extended solo run at a small San Francisco club where he faces the city's punk community head on. After one show he and Devo record "Hey, Hey, My, My," a pointed meditation on the nature of fame, using Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten as metaphors. The song will become the core of Young's next excursion with Crazy Horse in the fall of 1978, during which the band plays more aggressively than ever. Various recordings comprise the Rust Never Sleeps album, released the following July, while an entire show in San Francisco is preserved on the soon-to-follow RNS concert movie, and accompanying album Live Rust. Overall, the theatrically-constructed tour is a unanimous triumph for Young and The Village Voice names him "Artist of the Decade," but there are now new challenges to face within his family.
1980 to 1982
With the Rust releases still earning praise, Hawks & Doves, another grab bag of old and new songs is quietly released. Part of the ambivalence towards it also stems from Young's public endorsement of Ronald Reagan's presidential bid. But by now Young is more concerned with the upbringing of Ben, his first child with Pegi, who is born with cerebral palsy. Seeking the most innovative treatments, the couple enrol Ben in an intense physical therapy program, based around repetitive exercises. These draining activities strongly influence Young's next album, Re-ac-tor, an uninspired effort with Crazy Horse. Young's inability to tour because of his family commitments results in Warner Bros. and manager Roberts feuding over how to promote the record. When word gets out that Roberts is looking for a new deal, his old friend David Geffen makes a huge offer that includes complete creative control, and in 1982 Young begins his ill-fated stint on Geffen Records. The sessions for what will become Trans are dominated by another offshoot of Ben's therapy, new technology such as synthesizers and vocoders. Fans are shocked by songs like "Computer Age" and a new version of "Mr. Soul," charging Young with selling out to New Wave. His first tour since Rust, featuring the surprising reappearance of Bruce Palmer on bass, is also a financial setback few fans pay to see him roaming the stage in a skinny tie and headset microphone. Geffen is not impressed with the fruits of his investment.
1983 to 1985
Young's pendulum swings back again as he decides to do a country-based album. Utilising much of the Harvest crew, expectations are high for Old Ways, but Young shelves the project after becoming ill on a solo tour shortly after the sessions. During the much-needed vacation, he becomes intrigued by rockabilly. The idea actually has its roots in Geffen's recent suggestion that he should "play more rock n roll." Everybody's Rockin', credited to Neil Young & the Shocking Pinks, is released in July, 1983 to unanimous derision. The only bright spots are his first videos for MTV, wonderfully odd clips directed by Tim Pope, known for his work with the Cure. This isn't enough to appease Geffen, and in November he sues Young for damages, citing that the Geffen albums are "not commercial,' and musically uncharacteristic of Young's previous recordings." Young counter-sues, but the case does not ultimately go to court. The upside is that the media takes Young's side on the matter, although his next album, a thoroughly revamped version of Old Ways following aborted sessions with Crazy Horse, gives them little justification. Upon its release, Young appears with CSN at Live Aid then immediately joins Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp in establishing Farm Aid. The Old Ways tour, featuring a tight, rollicking country band, is a breath of fresh air, although the general conservative tone to his performances offends much of his hardcore following.
1986 to 1988
Young attempts another experiment on his next album, Landing On Water, making his first completely overdubbed recording with L.A. session musicians. As could be expected, it is another dismal failure on all levels. Young turns his attention to the Bridge School, which he and his wife establish to help mentally and physically challenged children. The Bridge School benefit concerts will become an annual highlight on Young's calendar for years to come. To promote Landing On Water, Young tours with Crazy Horse, although Young's insistence that they incorporate new technology adds to growing friction within the band. They manage to record Life and tour again in the summer of 1987 but by now both the band and producer Briggs have little tolerance for Young's musical mood swings. Young takes out his own frustrations with the growing corporate domination of the music business, writing "This Note's For You." He envisions it being played by a horn-led blues band, and subsequently puts together such a unit he calls the Bluenotes. Young gets another boost for the project when the Geffen contract finally expires and he resigns with former label Reprise. The video for "This Note's For You" generates much controversy by taking obvious jabs at corporate shills like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, but Young remains unrepentant. The Bluenotes' tour contains some equally great moments, but the album is a pale representation. In the midst of this activity, Young agrees to participate in a new CSNY album that fall, largely as a favour to Crosby who has successfully beaten his addictions and survived a liver transplant. Although none of the usual arguments among the quartet occur, various factors including Stills's rampant cocaine abuse, and overly artificial production, make American Dream doomed from the start, leaving Young hungry for something real.
1989 to 1991
Taking along the Bluenotes' rhythm section (soon to be dubbed the Restless), Young holes up in a New York studio for a series of intense sessions dominated by his renewed passion for electric guitar. The results are some of the most brutally elegant music he has made. Unhappy with the mixes, he decides to issue only five tracks on the limited edition Eldorado EP to coincide with a tour of the far east. During this time, Young becomes gripped by the political upheavals in Europe and China and chimes in with "Rockin' In The Free World," an irresistible anthem that will bookend his summer solo sets in 1989. It will be given a proper debut, in full electric guise, that September on Saturday Night Live, a riveting indication that Young has returned to his former self. That week also sees the release of Freedom, which in combining several Eldorado tracks with more standard acoustic songs, is hailed as Young's finest album since Rust. Now back in everyone's good graces, Young seeks to patch things up with Crazy Horse. The band, and producer Briggs are summoned to the ranch in February, 1990 and agree to make an album in their traditional fashion. Through several emotionally-charged sessions, they turn out Ragged Glory that fall, a raw and noisy collection that sits perfectly alongside work by emerging artists like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana. In fact, many of these artists had acknowledged their debt to Young on the previous year's tribute album, The Bridge. Young sees the connection as well and invites Sonic Youth to open the Ragged Glory tour, prompting Rolling Stone to name him "The Godfather Of Grunge." The tour is documented with the live album Weld that also includes Arc, a disc of the extended feedback jams that were the tour's trademark.
1992 to 1995
With his energy drained and his hearing shot from the Ragged Glory tour, Young gathers the Harvest band again, faithfully recreating the vibe of that album. Harvest Moon is a massive success despite a few glaring weaknesses. This return to mainstream popularity persuades him to reluctantly accept an offer to do an MTV Unplugged album, with barely acceptable results. However, a new fire is lit when Young appears at the Bob Dylan tribute concert in October 1992, where his version of "All Along The Watchtower," backed by Booker T. & the MGs, is the show's clear standout performance. The following summer, Young & the MGs go on tour; the shows climax with "Watchtower" and the Otis Redding classic "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay." Plans are afoot to do an album together, but that quickly changes when Young is asked to compose a song for the film Philadelphia. The simple piano tune, also called "Philadelphia," is later nominated for an Academy Award, and sets Young to writing more stripped-down material. Sessions with Crazy Horse take place throughout the spring of 1994, whereupon Young is shocked by the death of Kurt Cobain. The news comes with word that his suicide note contained a reference to "Hey, Hey, My, My," casting a dark mood over the studio. Young doesn't directly address Cobain's death, but a new song, "Sleeps With Angels," is written in its wake and becomes the title track of the album, released in August. A murky collection, reminiscent of his mid-'70s material, Angels isn't a big seller but earns widespread critical praise. Young is inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in January, 1995 (where he jams with fellow inductees Led Zeppelin), and later that month he is invited by Pearl Jam to play a pro-choice benefit in Washington. Although he has Crazy Horse in tow, Young also plays with Pearl Jam and immediately offers to record with them. They hastily put down a bunch of Young's new songs, plus a few PJ numbers, and the generally lacklustre Mirror Ball is released in June. They follow it up with a short tour of Europe together before quietly putting the collaboration to rest.
1996 to 1998
While in the midst of working with Pearl Jam, Young learns that his old colleague David Briggs is dying of cancer, which will claim him before the year is out. As a tribute, Young declares 1996 "Year Of The Horse" and reunites with Crazy Horse for a worldwide tour that finds them playing marathon shows that touch on all points in their history. They also record Broken Arrow, but its unevenness is ignored in light of the band's epic live performances. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch Young had scored his previous film Dead Man is invited along for the ride and his Year Of The Horse documentary faithfully captures the band's essence, as does the eventual YOTH live album. At the conclusion of the tour, Young retreats to his ranch and other distractions such as developing model trains for the Lionel Company, running his Vapor Records label (which, after courting Canadian singer/songwriter Hayden, later signs Canadians Tegan & Sara) and amassing his long-threatened Archives retrospective, which still has yet to see the light of day.
1999 to 2002
A relatively long period of silence is broken when CSNY announce a tour and album to coincide with the new millennium. With seemingly all bitterness put aside and Young firmly in the driver's seat, the CSNY2K tour is a huge success. The album, Looking Forward, is not. Young releases Silver & Gold shortly thereafter, a quiet, unadorned set, dwelling on age and nostalgia. A solid if unspectacular effort, its impact is dampened by complaints that Young sacrificed better songs on the CSNY project. He hits the road that summer with a band comprised of family members and long-time compatriots like Ben Keith, playing mostly old numbers. A live album, Road Rock Vol. 1, is released with little fanfare. In 2001, Young sets about making his long-delayed album with the MGs, but the sessions take a dramatic turn following the 9/11 attacks. Young responds with "Let's Roll" in honour of the passengers who fought the hijackers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. It is released to radio stations within weeks, but its jingoistic tone fails to resonate with a deeply divided nation. After another big tour with CSNY, the song is officially released the following April on Are You Passionate?, further evidence that personal stability does not aid Young's creativity. It's easily his weakest album in more than a decade. Aside from a low-key appearance on the Tonight Show, he does little to promote it.
On the heels of the first-time-on-CD release of four albums, On The Beach, American Stars N Bars, Hawks And Doves, and Re-ac-tor, Young emerges with another typically bold statement. His new target is the mass media and its effect on American values. Around this theme he constructs Greendale, a song cycle based on characters in a fictional small town. It is debuted during a large-scale tour with Crazy Horse that includes stage sets, actors, dancers and multi-media pieces. Much like Rust Never Sleeps, it seems to signal a new sense of purpose in Young's work, just when it is badly needed.